Left Is Not Woke, by Susan Neiman (Polity, 160 pp., $25)

Theresa May, Britain’s fourth-most-recent prime minister, has a book to sell. In a recent interview, the former Conservative leader declared herself “woke and proud.” In The Abuse of Power, she cites an Oxford English Dictionary definition of woke as being “well-informed, up to date and chiefly alert to racial discrimination and injustice.” She told her interviewer: “And on that basis, who would not want to be woke?”

May left office in 2019 (politics comes at you fast in the U.K.), but she still sits in Parliament and, presumably, stays abreast of current affairs. It is not ignorance, then, that explains her resorting to the dictionary when discussing wokeness. Rather, it demonstrates the bad faith typical of many leading proponents of woke policies and ideas. 

Defining wokeness as nothing more than an “awareness of injustice” is—to use a term favored by progressive thinkers—gaslighting. It tells parents worried about their kids being taught that gender is fluid, or employees reluctant to attend yet another mandatory diversity-training workshop, that their eyes and ears deceive them. “There is no such thing as woke,” claim the deniers; there is just progress and kindness. “Woke” is an invention, a figment of the right-wing imagination. Denouncing “wokeness” is, they claim, a cover for bigotry.

People know better. When they find their hospital bedecked in rainbow pride flags, their children browbeaten about white privilege, and their favorite childhood movies fundamentally altered, they know that “wokeness” is real, and that it means far more than the state of being “well-informed” and “alert to racial discrimination.”

Being woke means being aware of some social injustices more than others. Raising concerns about men using women’s bathrooms, for example, can get you suspended from your job; men’s desire to urinate in the location of their choice takes precedence over women’s right to feel safe in public. Being woke also means responding to perceived injustices in a certain way. Britain’s National Health Service spends millions of pounds on equity, diversity, and inclusivity projects, for example, while some of its low-paid nurses are forced to use food banks. Economic hardships get overlooked, while the U.K.’s General Medical Council obsessively removes references to “mother” and “women” from the language of its maternity-leave and menopause policies. Finally, wokeness connotes an authoritarian impulse: proponents compel some speech, such as people’s chosen pronouns, while censoring other speech. Most people know instinctively that wokeness entails overturning a once-progressive, colorblind, gender-neutral approach to equality with an identity politics that re-emphasizes biological differences.

This is the context in which the philosopher Susan Neiman, in her new book Left Is Not Woke, launches an assessment of woke thinking. A self-declared “leftist and socialist,” Neiman offers readers a philosophical defense of the Enlightenment values of universalism and reason. In doing so, she exposes the ways in which identity politics and the valorization of victimhood have led today’s leftists to adopt beliefs that they once furiously opposed, such as dividing people into groups and suppressing free speech. Since many of today’s progressives either deny the existence of wokeness outright or downplay it through references to the dictionary, we should not be surprised that Neiman’s intelligent treatise has been met with incredulity, denial, and insults.

Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, for example, history professor Samuel Clowes Huneke describes the book as “a cringe-inducing screed.” He maintains that wokeness is simply “a catch-all for any policy, position, or person with which conservatives disagree, often in cartoonish ways,” noting that “the concept is so ridiculous, most serious thinkers haven’t wasted much energy on it.” The implication is that any attempt at discussing wokeness marks an author as unserious. Huneke is good at gaslighting: “Neiman also struggles to clearly articulate the (imagined) position of her (imagined) ‘woke’ interlocutors, who become the straw men one suspects she really wants them to be.” In other words, Neiman, and anyone else who spies the influence of wokeness in their daily lives, has made the whole thing up. It’s all in our imagination. 

In The Philosopher, Nathan Oseroff-Spicer takes a similar tack. “I think it best to view the term ‘woke’ in light of how it functions as a speech act,” he writes. “Woke,” he tells us, functions “more as a boo or a hiss, signaling the speaker’s disapproval and opprobrium.” Oseroff-Spicer condemns Neiman for not “setting out any substantive content of wokeness” and claims that “[w]ithout clear descriptions, definitions, or examples of ‘woke,’ and without quoting any ‘woke’ thinkers at any point, it may seem Neiman is battling a series of straw-people.” He simultaneously demands specifics and, at the same time, writes off “woke” as an (imaginary) “snarl word,” leaving readers wondering what evidence might have satisfied him.

Huneke condemns Neiman for criticizing “the ‘vehemence of woke arguments about the importance of pronouns,’ for instance, without pointing to a single example of such vehemence.” Let me help him out. In the U.K., Halifax bank expects its staff members to wear pronoun badges. Customers who question this practice have been told to take their money elsewhere. In both New Zealand and Ireland, teachers have lost jobs for refusing to acknowledge pupils’ preferred pronouns. Back in the U.K., a doctor with 26 years’ experience was dismissed from a government position for not being willing to use a hypothetical transgender patient’s preferred pronouns (he was eventually reinstated). Perhaps most outrageously, female prisoners who use the wrong pronouns for transgender inmates (presumably males in women’s prisons) may have extra time added to their prison sentences.

These critics are so convinced that wokeness is not real that they fail to engage convincingly with the substance of Neiman’s challenge. Meantime, contemporary left-wing thinkers, Neiman argues, “have abandoned the philosophical ideas that are central to any left-wing standpoint: a commitment to universalism over tribalism, a firm distinction between justice and power, and a belief in the possibility of progress.” So desperate are they to construe every utterance of the word “woke” as a right-wing shot in the culture war, they miss some important historical and philosophical lessons.

Neiman’s primary goal is to defend the political and intellectual gains of the Enlightenment against those academics who today trash such principles as racist and regressive. Huneke is one such critic. His review of Neiman’s work chiefly consists of a lengthy counter-list of Enlightenment thinkers who used racist language or supported racist practices.

While acknowledging that many Enlightenment philosophers bore the hallmarks of their time, Neiman notes that thinkers like Rousseau, Diderot, and Kant were among the first to condemn Eurocentrism and colonialism. Crucially, she argues, their thinking “laid the theoretical foundation for the universalism upon which all struggles against racism must stand.” Neiman is clear-eyed about the historical limitations and perversions of the Enlightenment project; its philosophers expressed an aspiration, a promise, but not a fully formulated action plan. They described the world as it could be, not as it was. This gap between rhetoric and reality, between aspiration and fulfilment, allowed twentieth-century thinkers, particularly those on the left, to tarnish the Enlightenment. “It’s now an article of faith,” Neiman writes, “that universalism, like other Enlightenment ideas, is a sham that was invented to disguise Eurocentric views that supported colonialism.”

Neiman’s book delineates the differences between wokeness and the positions of earlier left-wing thinkers, and how wokeness has become increasingly regressive under the influence of identity politics. “Once upon a time, essentializing people was considered offensive, somewhat stupid, anti-liberal, anti-progressive,” she writes, “but now this is only so when it is done by other people. Self-essentializing and self-stereotyping are not only allowed but considered empowering.” The upshot is that members of disadvantaged communities are further disempowered in the name of progress. Wokeness, Neiman explains, “begins with concern for marginalized persons, and ends by reducing each to the prism of her marginalization.”

The rise of intersectionality has only deepened this trend. The theory that interlocking systems of oppression lead to people being multiply oppressed “might have emphasized the ways in which all of us have more than one identity,” Neiman writes. “Instead, it led to focus on those parts of identities that are most marginalized, and multiplies them into a forest of trauma.” While university professors may benefit from this process, the poor and marginalized do not. In abandoning the Enlightenment values of universalism and reason—and vital principles of equality, justice, and fairness—woke activists wind up endorsing superstition, tribalism, and racialist thinking.

In 2014, Theresa May was photographed wearing a t-shirt bearing the slogan, “This is what a feminist looks like.” In 2017, now prime minister, May proposed changing the law to make it possible for people to change gender without medical approval, a process known as gender self-identification. In practice, this would have meant that any male could self-identify as a woman and gain access to women’s toilets, changing rooms, prison wings, hospital wards, and sports teams. This was the very opposite of defending women’s rights. One can be a feminist or a trans-rights activist, but not both.

Her support for gender self-identification suggests that Theresa May is indeed woke, as she proclaims. We shouldn’t be surprised. Woke values have not only been embraced by the establishment but have also become the organizing principles of public life, often to the detriment of women and minorities. Perhaps it’s time for Neiman’s left-wing critics to ask themselves which side they are on.

Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images


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